Southwest Pacific

New Caledonia gun sales shoot up ahead of independence vote

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 5:15pm

In the green hills of Grand Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, duck farmer Christophe Puesh is dodging the large puddles which have formed after the latest tropical downpour.

A descendant of French settlers who came to these Pacific islands after their colonisation in the 19th century, Puesh is hunting deer and wild pigs.

Here, hunting is entwined in the lifestyles of both indigenous Kanaks and more recent arrivals - but a debate on gun control in the islands is heating up, fuelled in part by a looming referendum on the polarising issue of independence.

Like many gun enthusiasts, Puesh is worried that plans to crack down on sales could impact him and his associates.

Watch: New Caledonia, a French archipelago, stocks up on guns ahead of independence vote

“It’s vital for a good quality of life,” he says. “Me, I’ll never buy meat. Hunting is huge - it saves me money and plays a huge role for us. It’s very important.”

Buying a gun was made significantly easier in New Caledonia in 2011, when certain provisions, including the need for police approval, were dropped.

Across the archipelago, sales shot up. Officially, there are 55,000 guns in circulation, among a population of 260,000. But on both sides of the gun debate, that tally is one of much amusement; figures of two to three times that are readily mentioned.

“There are the official statistics from the high commissioner, and then there is the reality,” said Philippe Gomes, a former president of the territory, in his Noumea office.

Gomes and his associates are preparing a bill to toughen up the requirements to buy a gun for the New Caledonian congress in March.

He says murders committed with a firearm happen at up to three times the French average, citing high levels of alcohol abuse. Alcohol is already subject to comparatively stringent controls - buying “takeaway” drinks over the weekend is prohibited, for example.

Guns complicate looming referendum

Yet Gomes knows that alienating responsible gun owners is no recipe for political success in New Caledonia, which, despite some autonomy and a special “collectivity” status, remains in French hands.

Guns have been bought, he says, “sometimes for good reasons, like hunting, and sometimes for the wrong reasons”.

Yet his backers say an excess of firearms is complicating an impending referendum on independence.

We are living in a politically polarised environment, and guns increase the risk of violence
Pierre-Jean Carrascosa

In the mid-1980s, pro-independence sentiments among Kanaks - and opposition among the non-indigenous community - provided the backdrop for violent unrest which killed up to 70 people.

A decade of cooling off saw the 1998 Noumea Accords usher in greater autonomy and a deal to hold a vote on breaking from Paris between this year and 2018.

Around 45 per cent of people are Kanak, while Europeans and smaller groups of Asians and Polynesians make up the rest of the population.

The stakes for independence are high. New Caledonia’s higher standard of living is aided by financial support from France, but anger over high prices led to mass demonstrations last year. The territory is also home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel deposits, a point rarely lost on pro-independence politicians.

Politics remains split down pro- and anti-independence lines, and proponents of gun control are once again concerned about arsenals being stockpiled.

“The real danger here is political,” says Pierre-Jean Carrascosa, of the Centre for a Common Destiny. His new think-tank is campaigning for a tougher approach, not least the introduction of a limit on the number of guns an individual can own.

“We are living in a politically polarised environment, and guns increase the risk of violence,” Carrascosa reasons.

“The whole procedure to go to the town hall to fill in papers is always an occasion to ask yourself ‘Do I really need a gun, and why?”

Privately, people speak of the “militia” rumoured to be dormant in smaller towns.

Gomes goes further in his estimation of radical elements keen on disrupting the hard-won, relative peace.

“There are certain people trying to provoke the population to commit an act, the consequences of which can never be reversed.”

Fears of a conflict

In a gun shop on the edge of the capital, customers browse high-powered rifles and telescopic attachments that are popular across the territory.

Even in the shop there is agreement that guns are being bought with the referendum in mind.

“For the referendum they would prefer to have some guns,” staff member Michael Bruear says of customers.

“They are afraid about a conflict between Kanaks and whites. People get scared very easily.”

Since talk of restrictions being brought back heated up late last year, he said sales have once more gone through the roof.

“Some smart people are stocking because they know if selling guns is prohibited, the price of guns will be very high,” he said, referring to the black market.

“They’re going to be selling them for a good price in two or three years.”